Critics' Corner
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Desson Howe - Weekend section, "Marketing campaign with pictures."

Rita Kempley - Style section,
"All Disney has really done in its disappointing 33rd animated feature is revive the stereotype of the Noble Savage."


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This film was awarded Oscars for Best Original Musical or Comedy Score and Best Original Song ("Colors of the Wind")


Disney's 'Pocahontas'

Scene from this movie

Chief Powhatan, a stern but loving father, wants Pocahontas to marry dour warrior Kocoum. The princess is not interested, because, as she explains in her first song, something or someone more exciting waits "Just Around the River Bend."

A tubload of greedy settlers are sailing toward what would soon be Jamestown. While the others are expecting to find gold, John Smith is searching for something more spiritual. Smith is out enjoying nature while his shipmates are out felling forests and strip-mining for gold.

Smith and Pocahontas fall in love, encouraged by Grandmother Willow (a talking tree). While the couple cuddle and converse about ecology beside a waterfall, their people are preparing for war. -- Rita Kempley Rated G


Director: Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg
Voices: Irene Bedard; Mel Gibson; David Ogden Stiers; Russell Means; James Apaumut Fall; Christian Bale; Linda Hunt
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Filmography: Mel Gibson






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A Lukewarm Indian Summer

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 23, 1995

Is it okay not to be completely bowled over by "Pocahontas," Walt Disney's latest blockbuster-in-the-making? Or is there a thumb's-up obligation to the network of tie-in merchandisers and—most importantly—the parents and children of America, who are anticipating another great Disney experience?

Welcome to the column of a reluctant grinch.

The animated story—based on the traditional tales of Pocahontas—is set in Virginia in 1607. Pocahontas (the voice of Irene Bedard), a beautiful member of the Algonquin Nation who's immersed in the ways of nature (her best pals are a raccoon called Meeko and a hummingbird called Flit), sets eyes on John Smith (Mel Gibson), a good-looking British soldier, and follows him around.

When they finally meet, the mutual attraction is immediate. After all, he's handsome and strapping, and she could easily star in her own "Thighs of Steel" video. Very soon, they're communicating famously and learning things about each other's culture.

But their love is threatened on all sides. Smith's boss, Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers), is here to kill "savages," who he believes are hoarding gold. Pocahontas's father, Powhatan (Russell Means), wants her to marry dour-faced Kocoum (James Apaumut Fall), a vigilant brave who watches her every move. The trouble starts when overeager British sentry Thomas (Christian Bale) follows Smith when he disappears into the forest to meet with his secret love.

In its effort to provide authentic depictions of tribal customs, clothing and characters, the studio enlisted a plethora of Native Americans as consultants and performers. So, in terms of positive ethnic representation, Disney's public relations department shouldn't have much to worry about. But in all other departments, the studio could use a little goosing. The scenario (written by Carl Binder, Susannah Grant and Philip Lazebnik) is disappointingly wan and obsequious. Their script recycles elements from "Snow White" to "The Lion King," with a father-child clash, a heroine's saintly pureness that transforms an entire people, a forbidden love, consultations with an oracle/shaman (in this case a tree spirit, voiced by Linda Hunt) and the usual sideshow of funny, fuzzy animals.

As for the songs, they're guaranteed to keep your shoes glued to the floor. Apparently composers Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz used up all their creative juices on Pocahontas's anthemic "Colors of the Wind."

Disney's Feature Animation department—now at 1,200 strong—creates some arresting images and movements. The title character, who seems composed entirely of curves, is the most fascinating of all. But after the stupendously cinematic "The Lion King," the latest feature feels downright ordinary. A case in point: The Governor, a tritely fat creation, looks as though he slid off the mediocre conveyer belt of Saturday morning TV cartoons.

In the ultimate test, "Pocahontas," which feels like a marketing campaign with pictures rather than a movie, will fade from collective public esteem faster than Disney's better hits, such as "The Lion King," "Aladdin" and "The Little Mermaid." You don't walk out of this movie thinking, "Wow, I'd like to see that again." You come out wondering where you parked the car.

POCAHONTAS (G) — Contains a scuffle that results in a tragic killing by gunfire.

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‘Pocahontas’: A Hit or Myth Proposition

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 23, 1995

Disney animators, frequently criticized for the studio's less-than-PC past, must have thought they finally got it right with "Pocahontas." But this ethnically sensitive, eco-friendly, quasi-feminist tale of the pretty Powhatan princess has already been hammered for playing fast and loose with history as the remaining Powhatans know it. Not only that, all Disney has really done in its disappointing 33rd animated feature is revive the stereotype of the Noble Savage.

Pocahontas was only 12 when she saved the life of Captain John Smith, whom one historian described as an olde crosspatch. Here, though, she has been aged by a decade. Thus, Pocahontas splashes from the paint pots a fully ripened, aboriginal Barbie with waist-length, raven-black hair. Stacked and sturdy, she manages all manner of athletic feats while clad in a clingy, off-the-shoulder buckskin number.

Though born to the old-growth forests of Virginia, most of this ravishing free spirit's attributes are up-to-date. Like Meryl Streep in "The River Wild," she can canoe the white water, and like Streep in "The Bridges of Madison County," she chooses duty to her people over private passion. (Whether this leads to greater satisfaction for female audiences remains to be seen.)

Chiseled Chief Powhatan (voice by Indian activist Russell Means), the heroine's stern but loving father, wants Pocahontas (Irene Bedard) to marry dour warrior Kocoum. The princess is not interested, because, as she explains in her first song, something or someone more exciting waits "Just Around the River Bend."

Soprano Judy Kuhn sings for Pocahontas as the princess introduces the audience to the natural wonders of her world. But even as she frolics with her comical animal sidekicks—a rascally raccoon and a spunky hummingbird—a tubload of greedy settlers are sailing toward what would soon be Jamestown.

With his waist-length blond tresses and his impertinent pecs, Smith (Mel Gibson) might as well be the Fabio of the early 17th century. While the others expect to find gold, he is searching for something more spiritual. Smith is out enjoying nature while his shipmates are out felling forests and strip-mining for gold.

Smith is no tree-hugger when he first arrives in the New World, but he does appreciate its beauty. No pacifist either, he almost shoots Pocahontas before she can teach him to respect nature and cultures unlike his own.

The two fall in love, encouraged by Grandmother Willow (Linda Hunt as a talking tree). While the couple cuddle and converse about ecology beside a waterfall, their people are preparing for war. Though the two urge peace, the stage is already set for West Side Story on the Chickahominy. Like the Jets and the Sharks, the Powhatans and the colonists break into the same song as they prepare for the upcoming battle. "Savages, savages. They're not like you and me/ Which means they must be evil . . ."

The most heavy-handed of the seven songs composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, "Savages" lacks the vivacity and wit that Menken's late partner, Howard Ashman, brought to previous Disney musicals. The stirring anthem to animism, "Colors of the Wind," comes closest to a show-stopper. Otherwise, the picture is without the Busby Berkeley spectacle of "The Little Mermaid" and other recent Disney dazzlers.

Disney films traditionally give the dark forces their due, and "Pocahontas" is also drawn in the velvety hues of the forest primeval. There's a sense of mystery in this purply palette and one of majesty in the landscapes, but the drama of the drawings is never really echoed by the skimpy and predictable story.

Considering the fear and suspicion that marked the first encounter between these radically different cultures, "Pocahontas" ought to be as taut as a drawn bowstring. Then again, maybe the wary Mouse simply preferred to pass around the peace pipe.

Pocahontas is rated G.

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